University as Intervention Institution

Just finishing up the amazing book, Organizing Enlightenment and it has surpassed my expectations which were pretty high. The book chronicles the history of the formation of the research university in Europe, and the reasons behind it. The short version is that the Ph.D. oriented research university that we all know and some of us love more than others was a reaction to perceived information overload.

The ethos of books and printed matter was eroding in the 18th century. The transformation of books from the source of knowledge to commodities created a crisis in confidence about information. The university was the technology that stepped in to move the ethos of information away from a collection of print to an ethic - a group of people committed to working on a particular ethic of knowing - and through that commitment, they can know which books are valuable and which are not. But collecting books and memorizing them no longer served as the site of knowledge. The university community was that site. 

Long after that came the American Land-Grant college project, which gave land and resources to create huge state colleges and universities on the principle that the university creates things that are not only valuable to those who don't attend the university or work there - the members of society. Many land-grant colleges worked in tandem with farmers and engineers to test designs and do experiments that would benefit them, change methods, or test out ideas they always wanted to try themselves, but the stakes were too high.

After reading this book, I feel an essential tension exists at the university today - the tension between creating ethical subjects of knowledge and providing a social and societal benefit seem like they could be at odds anyway, but add to the mix that most universities are now focused on student careers, individual "branding" of students, and spending a lot of resources showing them how to get internships, write cover letters, and other menial tasks. University as job-placement center doesn't clash with these two larger aspirations - it erases them. 

Faculty are also caught in the echoes of this rhetorical DNA of the university, often adrift to find a viable identity outside of publishing niche essays that are barely readable in journals that have no coherence from essay to essay, which are hardly read as a journal, but serve more as repositories for resources for future journal creation. It's like the verbal version of the sci-fi clone organ farm come to life. 

What we need is a faculty-led move to make the university an agent of intervention again. Organizing Enlightenment shows how a few thinkers managed to be convincing that the orientation of the university should move away from books to people as the locus of knowledge. The land-grant project still haunts us - are our graduates the only social benefit we produce? This essential tension - between serving students who we are to make the ethical loci of knowledge vs. the obligation to also benefit society through our work and research - should be the focus of faculty intervention. And it can be a great source, historically rooted, with which to fight administrations who are dug into the perspective that the university should be engaged in job-placement services across the board. 

There are many ways to do this, more than there are faculty I bet. But the important thing is not to find the solution, but to think about that essential tension in everything we teach and write. The faculty need to adopt an ethic of knowing first, and there's no better way to do that than through practicing it in little ways, every day.